Carnegie Mellon Engineering

Scholarships Honor Parents and Heritage

When Nicholas Vlahakis (M.S. MechE, 1974) retired in 2005, he was at the top of his field. He was the executive vice president and chief operating officer for Alliant TechSystems, Inc. (ATK), an advanced weapons and space system company with sales of $4 billion. “From bullets and missiles to spacecraft, ATK manufactures almost anything that flies,” says Vlahakis.

Nick and Kimi VlahakisVlahakis' career was filled with accolades. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology for his work on the Pegasus rocket system. Pegasus enables the deployment of satellites from moving aircraft, which offers many advantages. For example, the problems associated with launching satellites from earth, such as bad weather conditions, can be avoided. Pegasus’ design featured a number of breakthroughs, including the use of graphite in rockets, which just happens to be one of Vlahakis' areas of expertise. (He credits Carnegie Mellon for expanding his knowledge about the mechanics of materials.)

By most measures, Vlahakis has achieved great success, but he worked hard to get it. He had to make his own way through college. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University, he returned to his hometown, Pittsburgh, to find a job. During the 1970s, he worked for Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh. Back then, Westinghouse sent a number of their engineers to night school at Carnegie Mellon. Vlahakis designed generators by day, while pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering. When he left Westinghouse, he moved to Utah to work as a rocket scientist for Hercules Aerospace Company. He added to his academic arsenal with an MBA degree from the University of Utah. Degrees in hand, he spiraled up the corporate ranks. First, he managed programs, followed by plants and divisions. Proving himself a capable leader, he then ran companies. Finally, he was running the entire operations for ATK, a major corporation with 14,000 employees across the United States.

He credits his education for helping him make the most of the opportunities he’s encountered, but there is more to his story. Vlahakis will never forget how his parents and their friends inspired him to excel as an adult and persevere as a child, when his life was less than idyllic.

Vlahakis' parents, George and Antonia, had both immigrated to Pittsburgh from the Chania region of Crete. With tremendous determination and effort, the Vlahakis' forged their American Dream: they opened a bar in downtown Pittsburgh, the Allies Cafe. In 1952, when Vlahakis was just four years old, his father suddenly died, and his mother, who barely spoke English, was forced to run the business and raise three children on her own. By working to provide for her family, she taught her son to work hard and to appreciate the Cretan community that played a large role in their lives.

Today, both of Vlahakis' parents have passed away, but as a tribute to them and his heritage, a $1,000,000 ATK/Nick Vlahakis Scholarship and Fellowship Fund at Carnegie Mellon was established. "When I went to school, I received help, and now I want to help others," he says.

Since 2003, financial awards have been given to students studying electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and chemical engineering, along with materials science and engineering, and computer science. While the awards are granted to young adults who meet specific financial and academic criteria, Vlahakis wants students to know that whenever possible, a special feature of these awards can sometimes give preference to students of Cretan descent.

"My DNA is from Crete," says Vlahakis, "These scholarships honor my parents and heritage, and I hope they encourage an awareness of the Isle of Crete."


~ By Sherry Stokes